David Cameron must sometimes think that he just can't win. There he is introducing a fail-safe crowd-pleaser policy - cutting child benefit for the wealthiest families - and it backfires. Undoubtedly the opt-out, tax-claw-back, missing letter fiasco is a dismal mess. But implementation chaos aside, everybody hates it. The poor perceive a disingenuous token gesture from a toff. The middle-classes feel unfairly pinched. And the rich feel robbed.
It is this last response that is perhaps most surprising: outrage at the withdrawal of less than £2K, from people who make millions.
Of course there are a large swathe of affected 'wealthy' families who only just tip into the top 15% tier. For them, many with a single salary, this kind of annual loss will be significant, and their displeasure is easily understandable. More interesting is the great sense of indignation that has been expressed by those who really don't need the cash.
Not Boris. He has already put his child benefit into honest, ski-holiday perspective. And so it is for many at the very top. Yet there seems to be something more than practical financial difficulty that is sparking anger. Child Benefit has his a national nerve. Perhaps, because it tugs at fundamental questions about what each of us puts into the state, and what we get out of it.
For many families in that 15%, Child Benefit represents the last visible, tangible thing they receive from the state. If they do not send their children to state school, if they use private healthcare, if they pay for their lawyers, drive a car, own their property, and have never claimed welfare, then this may be the only state benefit they have ever received. And put in these terms, they may well feel entitled to it. Of course, it can be argued that they are privileged not to have to rely on state infrastructure, not to have to sit on NHS waiting lists or suffer a post-code lottery education. And this is true, it is a privilege, a luxury. But we must not forget that those taking the least from the state are also those who put the most into it. Not proportionally, not 10 times more because they earn 10 times more, but 20, 30, 40, a hundred times more. 45% of all the money they earn. And that is before inheritance tax halves it again. This is a huge contribution to a state they may feel gives them very little in return.
Of course visible or not, there are many state services that everybody benefits from: the courts, the police, defense, refuse collection, etc. etc. But in terms of personal benefit, specific reward, Child Benefit's about it. Or used to be. And so, need or not, indignation is the order of the day.
One would think that at least those at the other end of the spectrum would be happy about the change. Yet on blogs and forums and other media, there has been a wave of vitriol against the government either for squeezing the middle, or for not squeezing enough. For sitting on high perches and not 'getting' what it's like to be 'real'. For merely opting out of a benefit they should never have claimed in the first place, being, as they are, such silver-spoon-fed trust-funders. It rarely seems to factor in such rants that many of the wealthiest in society have simply worked hard. Often from humble beginnings. Or that their success is what funds the safety net for others. The rich are hated. And fair game.
Thus we are breeding a culture in which achievement is not only taxed, but sneered at. Aspiration has been replaced with resentment. It is not about climbing up, but pulling others down.
This is a sad and insidious dynamic. It springs from a fundamental feeling of unfairness right across the class spectrum, and the response to Child Benefit cuts encapsulates it perfectly. Yet there are real reasons for such sentiment. It is not simply good-old class prejudice, but a result of bad social policy allowed to linger too long.
Cameron's Big Society is finally challenging this. He is right when he insists that it must pay to work, that benefits should not rise faster than wages. When 30% of the budget is spent on welfare, it is not 'fair' for working taxpayers to support the chronically work shy. It is likewise not 'fair' for the wealthiest to draw Child Benefit from scare resources the less fortunate need.
The articulation of it may be misjudged. (Let's be honest, the government's made a hash of it.) But the principles are right. Child Benefit is one symbolic example of how the structure of British society is systemically felt to be unfair.
Undoing this is a difficult task. It is the reason why with every reform the government makes there is a barrage of anger and controversy. It is why Cameron can't win. But it is essential that he reforms anyway, so that we continue to ask ourselves the all-important question: what do we expect to take from society, and what are we prepared to put in?
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